VOCES8: LIVE from London – Christmas 2023

In a personal note to accompany his second solo disc, Bach, VOCES8’s artistic director Barnaby Smith observed that approaching his ‘beloved’ Bach’s music filled him with ‘some trepidation’: ‘I’m sure most of us struggle to feel worthy of his genius and the searing humanity expressed in his works.  His music feels both untouchable and enticing; perhaps therein lies the ultimate attraction.’

Well, Smith and VOCES8, and the VOCES8 Foundation Choir, have repeatedly and rewardingly ventured to overcome any such trepidation and to give in to the enticement: for example, at Cadogan Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra on Good Friday in 2021, and with the Academy of Ancient Music on Easter Sunday that year, in a wonderful performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass.  And, so, it was Bach to whom VOCES8 and the VOCES8 Foundation Choir and Baroque Orchestra returned to open their Live from London: Christmas 2023 online festival (4th December – 7th January), presenting a live programme at their musical home – the church of St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London – in which movements from the B Minor Mass interweaved between the chorale movements from Cantata 140, Wachet Auf (Sleepers awake); the first cantata from the Christmas Oratorio; and the opening movement of Cantata 190, ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’.

What better way to begin than with the Gloria In Excelsis Deo from the B Minor Mass?  From the opening bars, the glory and majesty swelled sumptuously: tangy brass, colourful woodwind, energised strings, the voices throwing the counterpoint back and forth with elasticity and precision.  The richness of the sound seemed to suggest, here and throughout the performance, a choir of much larger forces.   Then came the shadows of Et In Terra Pax, with its deep, gravelly bass pedals; but, Smith kept things always moving forwards – the sopranos leading the way, bright and fresh and free, but the bass entries so telling, enriching with a lovely warmth, and the rippling semiquavers which celebrate the goodwill that is shared with all men – ‘hominibus bonae voluntatis’ – so clean and flowing.

Three chorales from Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme followed.  The tautness and clarity of rhythm and texture in the opening chorale illuminated the denseness of the musical ideas: oboe forays and string dialogues, above strict bass quavers; the sopranos’ chorale theme sure and clean, with invigorating movement from the lower voices.  Smith mastered the musical rhetoric, as the watchman called from the battlement to wake the city of Jerusalem.  The instrumental episodes were energised by dialogues between Leo Duarte’s oboe syncopations and the strings scaling surging – the latter always fleet and light.  The confidence of the choric assertions and the sprightliness of the ‘Hallelujahs’ added to the sense of an endless unfolding of musical ideas in response to the text, urging all to ready themselves to meet the Lord.

Chris Moore

‘Zion hört die Wachter singen’ is more usually sung by a tenor, I think, but bass Chris Moore was a confident guide, urging, ‘We all follow to the hall of joy and stay for supper’ (Und halten mit das Abendmahl).  Smith didn’t hang about, and the briskness was matched by wonderfully precise string ensemble. 

The cantata ends with a simple setting of the last verse of the hymn that opens the work, ‘Gloria sei dir gesungen’, foretelling of a new Jerusalem.  Again, Smith pushed things along, eschewing the opportunity to let each phrase rest at its close and sometimes cutting off the cadences, but this only made it more satisfying to relish the sweet rejoicing of the final phrases – ‘Des sind wir froh, Io, io! Ewig in dulci jubilo’ – when the relaxation came.

Dominic Carver

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is divided into six sections, designed to be presented over a span of twelve days during the observance of the Christmas season, and first heard in this manner in 1734-35.  Last weekend the oratorio – its title suggesting links with the gospel narration of the Passions – was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank in its entirety, across two evenings, by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Masaaki Suzuki.  Here, we had just the first cantata. 

The joy of ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage’ – taut, punchy brass motifs, swelling scalic instrumental runs, elated choric statements followed by precise imitation – was infectious, and never once flagged, the glow of the whole ensemble rich and lustrous.  Tenor Euan Williamson and Katie Jeffries-Harris were eloquent as the Evangelist and alto soloist in the secco and accompanied recitatives, respectively, and Jeffries-Harris’ emotive and articulate attentiveness to the text in the following aria, ‘Bereite dich, Zion’, was tremendously engaging, as was Duarte’s vivid duetting.  The chorale ‘Wie soll ich dich empfangen’ was as embracing as it should be, the harmonic nuances and flowing phrasing conveying a collective desire to be comforted by Christ.  Dominic Carver was an eloquent soloist in ‘Er ist auf Erden kommen arm’, his plush and coloured bass a lovely foil for the sopranos’ choric contributions, and equally impressive as a suave counter-voice to the trumpet’s floridity in the following aria, ‘Grosser Herr, O starker Konig’.  The consolations of the final chorale, ‘Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein’, were a cogent final word.

Katie Jeffries-Harris

But, there was no pause for rest: the Sanctus of the B Minor Mass swept things forward – again, Smith wasn’t hanging around – the basses’ octave striding was forthright, the upper voices’ triplets swelled persuasively, both punctuated by hard-stick timpani fanfares.  Once again, especially given the tempo, the precision of the ‘Pleni sunt’ was impressive.  To bring the performance to an end we had the magnificent double-choir motet, ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’, the text’s various invocations to musical instruments inviting wonderfully celebratory contributions from the trumpets and timpani, and ensuring that the concert ended with a tone of triumph and assurance.

Times may seem dark at the moment, but LIVE From London: Christmas 2023 will shine a light.

Claire Seymour

VOCES8 Foundation Choir & Baroque Orchestra, Barnaby Smith (conductor), Bojan Čičić (leader)

Christmas with J.S. Bach: Mass in B Minor BWV 232 (Gloria In Excelsis Deo, Et In Terra Pax); Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 140 (‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, ‘Zion hört die Wachter singen’, ‘Gloria sei dir gesungen’); Weihnachts Oratorium BWV 248; Mass In B Minor BWV 232 (Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth); Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 190

Church of St Anne and St Agnes, City of London (live stream); Monday 4th December 2023.